After a dismal opening 30 minutes in which they trailed 17-5, the All Blacks scored three quickfire tries in the second half to overcome the gallant Barbarians 31-22. So what did we learn from the frantic festival game at Twickenham?
1. Waisake Naholo has secured the right wing
Naholo was easily the All Blacks’ best player, setting up two tries with high skill offloads, making metres on attack and using his pace for some excellent cover defence. His opposing right wing, Julian Savea, had a decidedly quiet game and the drumbeat for his return to the All Blacks will weaken after this lacklustre effort.
2. Ngani Laumape is test class
In a spluttering All Black backline, Laumape and Naholo provided the only test class performances. Laumape used his pace and power to barge over for a try and also ran intelligent lines to put others into gaps. Unfortunately, Laumape’s combination with Anton Lienert-Brown didn’t gel but he must be at least close to a bench spot for the upcoming tests.
3. Steven Luatua should’ve been playing in black, Kwagga Smith should be in green
Both Barbarian back rowers Luatua and Smith had huge games against the All Blacks, and looked every bit test caliber. Luatua’s performance will have frustrated Steve Hansen, after he gave up his spot in the All Black squad for a position in the second division Bristol team. At 26, Luatua is reaching his peak as a player, and the maturity and poise he showed when offloading after one of his two intercepts contrasted with the muddle rookie All Black Vaea Fifita got himself into after a similar open field break.
Kwagga Smith was my Man of the Match – showing boundless energy, explosive pace and brutal strength winning several turnovers. The fact that All Black wing Waisake Naholo just managed to chase down a loose ball ahead of Smith shows his express pace, honed in the South African 7s team and very much on show for the Lions Super Rugby side this year.
4. The All Blacks are very vulnerable right now
The All Blacks are lucky that their Northern opponents will be in the early stages of team-building as a well-oiled and organised could really test an injury-ravaged All Black squad. The British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians showed the All Blacks have a weakness defending around the rucks, and Welsh coach Warren Gatland in particular, will have a gameplan ready for their encounter in Cardiff on November 26. The big French forwards could also test the All Blacks, especially on the Stade de France’s notoriously spongy surface.
Scotland will also like their chances of breaking their historical duck against the World Champions, as they will be the All Blacks’ third Test in a frankly ridiculously scheduled seven days from November 12-19 after two Tests against the French in Paris and Lyon.
5. There is no substitute for experience
The starting All Black side against the Barbarian side had an astounding 916 (423 vs 1339) fewer Test caps than the side that won the 2015 World Cup. And it showed. The All Black skills were scratchy, their finishing far from their usual clinical ruthlessness and were lacking their dominance in breakdowns and scrums.
However, this game is not a sign of the All Blackolypse. This was very much a second string side dotted with a few stars like Beauden Barrett to steady the ship. Any side missing the class of Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody, Owen Franks et al, is going to suffer in comparison and no eulogies should be penned just yet.